TOKYO, March 26, 2004 -- Musashi overcame a volley of foul blows to beat Akebono, Ernest Hoost effortlessly turned aside Xhavit Bajrami, and Bob Sapp scored a strange victory over Seth Petruzelli at the K-1 World Grand Prix 2004 in Saitama today.
The 2004 World GP Series kicked off at the Saitama Super Arena with a one-match tournament that brought some of K-1's strongest veterans and most promising newcomers together for nine bouts. The contests were fought under regular K-1 rules (3R x 3min, two possible extra rounds), with the winners receiving consideration for the September 25 World GP 2004 Semi Final Tournament.
French kickboxer Cyril Abidi took on 22 year-old Hiraku Hori of Japan in the first matchup. Hori had won six of his nine K-1 bouts. "I'm excited to meet a good fighter like Cyril," he said at the pre-event press conference, "it's my birthday next week and the win would be a great way to start celebrating!"
While Abidi had lost three of his last five bouts, these defeats had come against elite fighters (Remy Bonjasky, Ernesto Hoost, Alexey Ignashov). And so this fight was an opportunity for both fighters to put some shine on their records.
Abidi started things off with several punch combinations, then put the low kicks in. Hori, a southpaw, came back with hard kicks to Abidi's midsection. Hori got the best strike through in the first -- a left high kick which caught Abidi in the jaw at the clapper, and won Hori the round on two judges' cards.
Although he was frustrated by Hori's defense early in the second, Abidi finally got inside and turned things around midway through, with a flurry of punches that put Hori on the ropes. Abidi then coolly connected with a good left hook for a down. The third round was all Abidi, a graceless Hori ending up on the canvas a total of nine times, although six of these were ruled as slips. Abidi got his second down with a right high kick, another when Hori stumbled and fell while trying to stand from a slip, and secured the KO when, just seconds from the bell, Hori lost the will to fight and retreated to the canvas. A convincing win for Abidi, who looked focused and, as always, just a little wild.
The second bout pitted 33 year-old Dutch fighter Jerrel Venetiaan against Sergei Gur, 25, of Belarus. Gur knocked out three challengers to take the K-1 Marseilles this January. The underrated fighter's last K-1 defeat was way back in 2001, and came at the hands (and feet) of no less than Ernesto Hoost.
This was a good technical bout, both fighters light on their feet, guards high and tight, blocking well. In the second, Gur was the more animated fighter, showing fancy footwork and superior movement and positioning. Gur kept the initiative through the round, repeatedly tucking his head down and bulldogging in to throw punches against his taller opponent. Venetiaan woke up somewhat in the third, launching combinations which Gur answered by coming forward and throwing haymakers, most of which missed, some only just. Neither fighter did a lot of damage in this fight, and it might have been interesting to go to extra rounds. One judge did score the fight as a draw, but the others had Gur up by a single point each, handing the Belorussian a victory by the narrowest of margins.
A pair of South African fighters, Mike Bernardo and Jan "The Giant" Nortje, met in the third bout. There has been bad blood between these two ever since Bernardo left the gym (Steve Kalakuda's) where Nortje still trains.
"I think everyone is about fed up with you, Mike," said a somber Nortje to Bernardo at the pre-event press conference. "When you left our gym two years ago, you spoke badly of us. That wasn't very Christian of you. Well, what goes around comes around, and tomorrow I'll be coming around."
Bernardo had some strong words of his own for Nortje, "Look between the lies and you'll find the truth. You'll be coming around tomorrow, after the count of ten!"
After a severe center-ring stare-down during the referee's pre-fight instructions, the two men fell into a game of cat and mouse -- Bernardo slowly circling Nortje, occasionally throwing in low kicks, Nortje the big southpaw jabbing with his right, inching forward, looking for openings. Midway through the first, Nortje muscled Bernardo into the corner and let loose with a quick punch combination that sent him to the canvas for a down. Soon afterward, Nortje again got his opponent against the ropes, and this time it was a right hook that felled Bernardo. Soon afterward, the Giant, in what has to be had to be his best fight since 2002, unloaded a barrage of punches on Bernardo, who was totally overwhelmed and unable to answer. Although Bernardo briefly slipped out of harm's way, Nortje stomped back inside and delivered the coup de grace with a devastating left hook.
The KO victory delighted the crowd, and Nortje pumped his fist in the air as Bernardo sat stunned on the canvas, his head bowed in defeat. In a gesture of good sportsmanship, both Steve Kalakuda and Nortje came over to give Bernardo a hug.
"I promised I'd win," said Nortje afterwards, "and I am happy to keep my promise!"
Another South African, Francis "The White Buffalo" Botha, stepped up in the fourth matchup. Good with his fists, Botha the boxer has struggled in the K-1 ring, stymied in his first three bouts by good kickers (Cyril Abidi twice, Yasuke Fujimoto). Tonight he took on a fellow pugilist, Aziz Khattou of Belgium.
This started out much like the previous bout, the larger Botha holding center ring, looking for openings; the quicker Khattou circling, light on his feet, sniping with low kicks and straight punches. But Botha was just too slow, and midway through the first, Khattou was able to fire a right straight punch in and score a down. Botha adopted a more aggressive style as the fight wore on, using his size to bulldoze Khattou back into the ropes then unloading with tight hooks and body blows. Several times it looked like a wobbly Khattou might go down, but to his credit the Belgian always managed to stay on his feet, counter, and slip out of harm's way.
Botha got his best chances with a right uppercut in the second and with a right hook in the third -- a punch that snapped Khattou's head back smartly. Botha seemed to find his stride in the late going, winning the third round on two cards. Were it not for the down in the first, this fight might have gone to extra rounds -- or perhaps even Botha's way. As it happened one judge scored the contest a draw, and two gave the edge to Khattou. Both fighters were smiling afterward, and really, although he lost, Botha had nothing to be ashamed of in this dance -- clearly, he is maturing as a K-1 fighter.
The next bout saw veteran heavyweight boxer Shannon Briggs make his long-anticipated K-1 debut. The 32 year-old Briggs hails from Brownsville, the same tough Brooklyn neighborhood that produced Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. In 1997, Briggs took a 12 round decision against the legendary George Foreman to claim the heavyweight title. Briggs' opponent here was fellow American Tom Erikson, a 142 kg MMA fighter trying for the third time for his first victory in the K-1 ring.
It was immediately apparent that Erikson's strategy here was to wear down his boxer opponent with low kicks. Erikson threw four low kicks in the opening seconds of the bout, and even though they were not terrific strikes, Briggs did not look comfortable blocking them. And so Briggs fixed it so that he would not have to deal with any more kicks. Moving in quickly, he threw a left-right punch combination that put Erikson down. The big fellow slowly rose to one knee, and looked like he might beat the count -- if only the count were a whole lot longer. As the ref said 10, Erikson slumped back to the mat, and Briggs had a KO win in the first fight of his K-1 career.
"I am happy to win here," said Briggs afterwards. The multi-talented Briggs is also an actor and a rap singer, but has taken a shine to K-1: "I have a new film coming out soon, but after that I intend to focus on K-1."
Bob "The Beast" Sapp beat American wrestler Seth Petruzelli in the quickest and most bizarre bout on the night.
Petruzelli started the fight by performing a mocking clown dance. Sapp answered by stomping forward in his characteristic style, backing Petruzelli toward the corner. But, surprise -- Petruzelli quickly sent in a right punch which dropped the Beast cleanly for a down. After the count, as the two began to mix it up, Petruzelli suddenly stepped back, raised his right to eye level, stared a moment at his forearm, then fell to his knees. The referee stepped in, and should have started a count, but, nonplussed, didn't. Meanwhile Petruzelli just sort of knelt there, a look of pain-meets-bewilderment on his face, eyeing his forearm as if it were a foreign object. The ring doctor stepped up, and time was called at 0:57, as Petruzelli was "unable to assume a fighting pose."
It was later revealed that a punch to Petruzelli's neck had stung a nerve and put the fighter's arm temporarily to sleep, in that numb way that a rap on the funnybone will do.
A surprised Sapp, who was awarded a KO win under K-1 rules, he had this to say afterwards: "I still want to show my fans some of the new techniques I have been working on. With the way my things have been going recently (easy first round victories in his last three bouts) I have not had the chance to do that. I will be fighting again soon, hang on and maybe I'll get the chance to show you then!"
The Alexy Ignashov vs Carter Williams matchup was one of the card's most-anticipated bouts, especially for K-1 purists. Could Williams, the explosive K-1 USA 2003 Champion, stand up to knees and kicks of Alexy "The Scorpion" Ignashov, who had lost just once in K-1 since October 2002? "I'm fighting a damn good fighter and I'm nervous," said Williams at the pre-event press conference. "But I fight best when I'm nervous, so I know it's going to be a damn good fight."
Williams came out with a high kick that just missed Ignashov. Setting the pace in the first, Williams also connected smartly with a right uppercut, and followed it up with a right hook that stunned his opponent. Throughout, Ignashov was looking for the chance to get inside and, using his seven centimeter height advantage, bring his knee up on Williams. Soon after getting through with a good right straight punch early in the second, Ignashov found Williams coming in low. The Belorussian directed his opponent forward from the nape of the neck, and swiftly brought his left knee up to score a down. A badly shaken Williams valiantly beat the count, but Ignashov kept up the pressure, and shortly afterwards got the knee in again to down Williams for good.
The penultimate bout featured four-time K-1 World GP Champion, 38 year-old Ernesto "Mr. Perfect" Hoost of the Netherlands. Unfortunately, a training injury had scratched Hoost's scheduled opponent, defending World GP Champ Remy Bonjasky, from the card. Taking Bonjasky's place was Swiss karate fighter Xhavit Bajrami.
A late substitution, Bajrami really had nothing to lose here. To be sure, Bajrami is no pushover. The Team Andy (Hug) fighter has beaten tough customers such as Lloyd Van Dams and Mirco CroCop in compiling a record of 17 wins in 25 K-1 bouts. Plus, Bajrami is 10 years younger than Hoost, although you wouldn't have guessed it from his performance in this fight.
Hoost, always a paradigm of poise, was technical and balanced if unspectacular here. Unfortunately, Bajrami did not mount a very spirited challenge against the four-time Champion until it was too late. For most of the bout, the two sparred with little enthusiasm, Hoost throwing low kicks, coming in with one-two-three punch combinations, Bajrami responding in kind. At one point in the second, after absorbing three quick straight punches, Bajrami dropped his guard and blew Hoost a kiss, to suggest that Mr. Perfect did not have much mustard on his attacks. If Bajrami had turned it up a bit he might have had a chance to upset Hoost, who was far from his best here. Bajrami got a cheer from the crowd when he threw a nice Andy Hug-style ax kick late in the third, and this seemed to encourage the fighter, who proceeded to charge in and attack with much more vigor.
The final minute of this fight had more excitement than the first eight, but it was, as they say, too little too late. Hoost was only slightly ruffled as he weathered the storm, and went on to collect the win by a narrow but unanimous decision.
"I was not really into this fight," said Hoost afterwards," and that is why it went so slowly. I had prepared for Remy (Bonjasky) and I was very disappointed when I found out I was not fighting him. I had already beat Xhavit twice, it was not a challenge for me to beat him a third time."
In the main event, Japan's strongest K-1 fighter, Musashi, stepped in against former Sumo Grand Champion Akebono. This was the second K-1 fight for Akebono, who lost by first round KO to Bob Sapp on New Year's Eve. Akebono tips the scales at 220 kg, more than double Musashi (102 kg), and stands 18 cm taller than the Seidokaikan fighter. Akebono's K-1 coaches (first Steve Kalakuda and more recently Samoan Fai Falamoe) have strived to convert that size to power. Said Falamoe's cousin and K-1 veteran Ray Sefo, who has also been working with Akebono recently: "Naturally, Chad (Akebono) is a strong guy. But you have to learn to walk before you can run. So, Fai and I have been focusing on the basics, teaching Chad to use his reach, and developing his blocking and his jabbing."
Akebono made an emotional entrance to the ring, while the silver-haired Musashi pranced in to a laser show and pyrotechnics. From the bell, Akebono stood in the center of the ring while Musashi danced the perimeter, tossing in straight punches and low kicks. Midway through the first, Akebono rumbled forward, and used his colossal belly to squeeze Musashi against the ropes until the referee stepped in to separate the fighters. Thus began a pattern which would continue throughout the fight.
In the second, Akebono again got Musashi into the corner, at which point Musashi slipped and fell to a sitting position. Akebono then inexplicably delivered a couple of foul right hooks to the side of Musashi's head. He followed these up with four foul piledriver lefts to the top and back of Musashi's head before the referee could stop him, and Musashi crumpled face-first into the canvas.
Musashi was attended to by a ring doctor during a break of several minutes, the doctor electing not to use his prerogative to stop the bout. Referee Nobuaki Kakuda scolded Akebono for unsportsmanlike conduct, and announced that he would allow Musashi to continue if he chose to, which he did.
For the balance of the fight the previously outlined pattern recurred -- Akebono pushing forward and sandwiching Musashi against the ropes, pressing in with the ample gut while throwing body blows, tight hooks, or squeezing in an uppercut, the referee then moving in to break. In the interludes between Akebono's suffocating blubber maneuvers, Musashi executed some nice attacks -- straight punches, a few low kicks, a couple of high kicks, and a spinning back kick.
In the dying moments of the fight, Akebono swung a haymaker round and swatted Musashi good, then followed up with a Sumo pushing and throwing attack -- which, unfortunately, are not permitted under K-1 rules. A unique bout, which Musashi took by unanimous decision.
Afterward, Akebono was quick to apologize to Musashi and to his fans for the fouls.
"I realized Akebono's power and his stamina and endurance," said Musashi in the winner's circle. "At first I was cautious, but after the fouls, I don't really remember things so well, but I just kept on coming in because I felt pressure to win, as the fight was the main event."
In an undercard bout, Brazilian Fabiano beat Hiroshi Tajima of Japan by unanimous decision.
Special thanks to Monte Dipietro and K-1 for this write-up.
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